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Road to recovery: Q&A with Fiona Hyslop

Holyrood/David Anderson

Road to recovery: Q&A with Fiona Hyslop

Are you feeling optimistic about 2021 and our economic recovery?

The latest lockdown has returned much of the economy to crisis response, which is why on top of the original £2.3bn of COVID business support we have allocated a further £715m for business support since October.

Businesses and communities have shown a tremendous capacity to adapt during this pandemic and the actions they are taking are essential to help reduce the transmission of the virus.

I know that for everyone the restrictions are incredibly difficult and mean many sacrifices will have to be made. However, the difference between now and last March is that, with the help of vaccines, we now have confidence that brighter days are within our grasp.

The decision for mainland Scotland to go into lockdown again was not taken lightly and I will continue to do everything within my power to support businesses and the Scottish economy.

While suppressing the virus and ensuring the safety of Scotland’s workforce rightly remains our priority, we must now sharpen our focus on rebuilding for the future.

We have seen a significant milestone in our fight against the virus with the initial stages of the vaccination programme getting underway. However, it is still hugely important to help communities and business build greater resilience over the next few months to support a period of living with the virus.

We need to prepare and build the path towards economic recovery. Since March we have committed more than £1.2bn to drive that recovery including funds to bring forward capital investment as a construction led stimulus, investment in our digital recovery and initiatives such as the £62m Energy Transition Fund to support businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors to diversify.

The budget and the capital investment plans to be announced shortly will drive forward the green recovery plan with substantial investment in green energy, housing and transport.

By harnessing the skills and strengths of our businesses and people, we can ensure Scotland can thrive and compete in the future.

To help drive growth, we have launched the Scottish National Investment Bank with a commitment to capitalise it with £2bn over 10 years.

We have already published A Trading Nation, our export growth plan, which we will refresh in 2021 to take account of Scotland being outside the EU and our new targeted inward investment plan will deliver 100,000 high-value jobs over the next decade.

We are investing £75m in the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and delivering a set of targeted actions through a manufacturing recovery plan to support the manufacturing sector as it adjusts to the new economic context.

And building on the recommendations of the Logan Review, we will develop a world-class tech sector, building capacity and innovation.

I have the utmost respect for the drive, capacity and resilience of business leaders across Scotland. That is the foundation for our economic recovery.

Is a ‘well-being economy’ simply a luxury we can’t afford to pursue right now?

I am committed to helping transform our society and building an economy that will benefit everyone in Scotland. For me, it is imperative that we look beyond GDP to the fundamental wealth of a country. That is something that started before the pandemic began, and is even more important now.

This is an incredibility difficult time for everyone, and it is my strong belief that in recovering from this virus it must not be business as usual. We must use this moment to make significant advances to deliver the fairer, greener, more prosperous Scotland we all want to see.

To achieve this we have put a national mission to help create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs at the centre of our recovery.

We have launched the £60m Young Person’s Guarantee as well as a £15m Apprenticeship Employer Grant to help increase the number of employers able to take on an apprentice or upskill an existing staff member.

And our £25m National Transition Training Fund – which will help up to 10,000 people aged 25 and over who have lost their jobs or are at risk of redundancy as a result of this crisis – will help people develop the skills they require to move into sectors with the greatest potential for future growth and job opportunities, such as green technologies.

We are also determined to tackle the demographic challenges we face. The impacts of Brexit and the end of freedom of movement of people could have a devastating impact on our population and demography, with localised challenges felt most strongly in rural and remote communities.

Through the Population Programme and Ministerial Population Taskforce, we will set out the actions we will take to address this, bringing together the different strands of activity across Scottish Government.

We all talk quite glibly about ‘building back better’ but in your view what does that mean?

The pandemic has changed almost everything, questioning what we once knew as normal. As we rebuild our economy, we have an opportunity not simply to go back to how things were. I believe we must take this opportunity and ensure a fair, inclusive, resilient well-being economy for Scotland.

Fair work must be a hallmark of our well-being economy. We must make sure that the new jobs we support people to access are good jobs paying fair wages and complying with high standards. We must also seize the opportunity to create green jobs and train individuals with the skills they need to help us meet our commitment to reach net zero emissions.

This is not the easy option to take but pursuing a well-being recovery is the right thing to do. Crucially, the development of good, green, clean jobs as part of a sustainable and just transition to a net zero Scotland will also pay economic dividends, building on our strengths in engineering, manufacturing and energy industries as well as Scotland’s existing natural resources.

There is a lot of talk about the potential for a ‘lost generation’, young people who will see their employment opportunities shrunk by the consequences of this pandemic. You have children in that vulnerable age category, are you worried for their future?

I am determined to make sure the pandemic doesn’t disadvantage our young people’s future employment opportunities.

The Job Retention Scheme is playing an important role in supporting jobs during the crisis, particularly for our young people, and it is critical that the UK Government maintains this support for as long as it is needed.

However, it is also vital that we ensure the pandemic does not disadvantage our young people’s future employment opportunities. That is why we have established the £60m Young Person’s Guarantee which aims to give everyone aged 16-24 the opportunity of work, education or training.

As part of that, our Pathway Apprenticeships programme will provide work-based training which will start by helping 1,200 young people gain key skills in sectors like construction, business, IT, engineering and early years education.

I know from speaking with businesses that they want to give young people opportunities, but for many, the impact of the pandemic makes the costs hard to meet. So we’ll pay employers up to £5,000 for every new modern apprentice they take on.

The action we are taking now will help young people across Scotland meet their full potential.    

How overwhelming can that all feel and how do you prioritise thinking of the short and the long term?

I know that everyone is juggling competing demands at the moment, which can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming.

We are all human, everyone in every walk of life will have been affected at some point and I am no different. Reflecting on the hard work of our health and care staff and everyone who is giving their all to get through this pandemic helps me reapply myself to our collective mission to defeat this virus.

This has been a trying time for us all, which is why it’s important that the Scottish Government provides both the emergency support and the long-term stability that we need just now.  

My immediate economic challenge has been to protect jobs. Since the start of the pandemic last spring, we have made available to businesses almost £3bn in support to help mitigate the economic impacts of the virus on top of the support provided by the UK Government. 

With this funding, we are supporting our otherwise strong and viable businesses cope with the financial pressures arising from the pandemic, and in doing so are protecting our business base and jobs as part of preparing for a stronger recovery.

In addition to this, since March we have committed more than £1.2bn to supporting our economic recovery, helping us build a stronger, more resilient and sustainable economy – with a laser focus on creating new, high quality, green jobs.

We continue to monitor the situation in order to update business support as required. This month we announced a significant extension of the support for hospitality, retail and leisure businesses with automatic top ups of between £6,000 and £25,000 depending on the size and sector of the business.

As well as taking immediate action, providing stability is important in the face of this global crisis and in light of the huge uncertainty and disruption caused by Brexit.

In September last year we set out our actions for the coming year and beyond in our Programme for Government, with a national mission to create new, good and green jobs at the centre of it, and the finance secretary will publish the Scottish budget on 28 January to help drive the country’s economic recovery.

The First Minister has talked about knowing she will not be the same person that she was going into this pandemic. How do you think it has changed you?

I believe we have all been affected by this pandemic. Personally, I am more focussed on what matters and what really doesn’t in order to prioritise and I get less frustrated by things that would have affected me previously. I think COVID has forced a sharper perspective personally and politically.

In a practical way I am a different person as I can now bake cakes. I made a pavlova and for the first time I can now make pretty decent soup – so resilience comes in practical as well as emotional forms!   

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